UCF alumnus opens 1st rum distillery in South Florida

Rosen graduate Joe Durkin is the award-winning master distiller at South Florida Distillers.

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Not many recent graduates can say they get paid to play with strippers.

But that’s become a daily reality for UCF alumnus Joe Durkin when he goes into “The Studio” to tune up Kandi and Pixie for a long day of work. No poles or cash, though — these strippers are big lugs of machinery, meant to pull impurities from alcohol.

Churning out award-winning spirits with their two handmade assistant stills, Durkin and business partner Avi Aisenberg are Fort Lauderdale’s first rum distillers, operating out of their own company, South Florida Distillers.

The recently graduated duo partnered to combine their hospitality and engineering skills, and opened the distillery last year while avoiding the high costs of equipment by building it all themselves.

“[We] wanted to prove [we] can make really good rum without spending $2.5 [million] to $3 million just on equipment,” Durkin said. “Everything in here Avi built.”

The idea surged while both partners were involved in their own respective jobs.

“I happened to be recycling for the sugar mills, so after I started looking around at all the sugarcane and started thinking about rum,” Aisenberg said. “I picked up the phone and called some of my contacts at the sugar mill and was able to get a source of really, really high-quality molasses.”

He then approached childhood friend Durkin with the idea.

Durkin, who had been working at hotels and resorts in South Florida after graduating in 2012 with a degree in restaurant and food service, said he jumped at the opportunity.

Although they are his main girls now, Kandi and Pixie weren’t Durkin’s first foray into the world of alcohol stripping. That honor belongs to the unnamed still he built for a service management college assignment.

“Now, moonshine is technically just illegal booze, so that was my paper: ‘Moonshine is illegal booze, period,’” Durkin said. “That wasn’t going to cut it, [so] I made a little moonshine still that I ran on my patio for ‘educational purposes.’”

Now, he’s an award-winning master distiller at South Florida Distillers.

“I actually won Best in Class Premium White Rum on that first batch, at the world’s largest rum festival, the Rum Renaissance Festival in Miami,” Durkin said.

The duo’s first batch, dubbed ‘Fwaygo,’ which is a creative spelling of the Spanish word for fire, hit the South Florida market in March and quickly blew up.

It was this award, combined with Durkin’s door-to-door guerrilla sales strategy that resulted in placing Fwyago in as many as 20 South Florida establishments. After that, the duo scored a distribution deal with Total Wine.

“One of the things I learned from UCF is that it’s all about quality: If you start with good ingredients, you’re going to get good product,” said Durkin, who describes the product as clean, high-quality small-batch white rum, not some cheap swill. “[That’s why] we’re using high-grade cane syrup and I’m not taking any shortcuts. I’m doing it the way it should be done. We’re making high-quality spirits, it’s not just alcohol production.”

With Total Wine distributing Fwaygo white rum across South Florida, the partners said they now want to focus on expanding creatively and geographically.

Durkin’s next project in “The Studio,” as they’ve dubbed the distillery, is a line of interesting infusions, including grilled pineapple and Sirracha-barrel-aged coconut rums.

Meanwhile, the next sales step is to start moving the product up the Florida Peninsula, with Orlando as the next target market.

“[As] a UCF alum,” Durkin said, “I’d love to see it at Total Wines up there and be able to showcase some rum from a Knight.”

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Chris Muscardin is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.

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